Congress Working on ESEA/NCLB

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, May 2010

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has sent his “Blueprint” to Capitol Hill where Congressional committees are working on it in earnest, but most independent evaluators give Congress only a small chance of passing a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year. (The current version of ESEA is No Child Left Behind, NCLB.)  Duncan’s Blueprint continues NCLB’s high-stakes testing and punishments, improving some areas while worsening others. While low-scoring schools will continue to be subject to unproven sanctions, the plan will largely shift accountability mandates from schools to teachers. The Forum on Educational Accountability, chaired by FairTest, has developed alternative recommendations, sent to both the Senate and House. Whether or not reauthorization happens this year, now is a critical time for test reformers to engage actively in the debate as decisions made this year will influence next year’s work. Some key assessment and accountability issues under discussion are:

* Evaluating teachers. This is one extremely bad addition to NCLB. It builds on “Race to the Top” (RTTT) to require states to evaluate their teachers in significant part on their students’ test scores. Payment for performance has been tried and failed in education and other areas, in the U.S. and other nations. This evidence has not dissuaded Duncan or states now jumping on this bandwagon to cash in on RTTT. With some states passing teacher evaluation laws giving student test scores 50% of the weight (see article, this issue), Congress should put the brakes on this dangerous process.

* Amount of testing. The Blueprint will continue annual testing in grades 3-8. ESEA should return to the 1994 requirements to test once each in elementary, middle and high school. 

* Kinds of testing. FEA and FairTest seek federal support for higher quality assessments, including performance assessments; the use of various types of evidence of student learning (multiple measures) to assist instruction and inform decisions; the use of local and classroom-based evidence of student learning to evaluate schools; federal support for professional development for teachers on assessment, including the use of assessment for learning; and a bottom-up, not top-down, approach to overhauling assessment systems (see FEA’s expert panel on assessment report).

The Blueprint calls for the use of “growth” measures. If Congress supports this, it should require states to include multiple measures and bar high-stakes misuses such as for teacher evaluation (see also “Consortium Guidelines,” this issue).  

* Adequate yearly progress (AYP). In a victory for reformers, the Blueprint drops the dangerous pretense that virtually all students would score proficient by 2014. However, it proposes the equally illusory goal of requiring states to ensure all their students are on track to be “college and career ready” by 2020. If Congress buys this fantasy – and it has powerful supporters in addition to the administration – it could set up another AYP scheme, or require states to do so. Because in most states those tests probably will be harder to pass, most schools could again be labeled ‘failing.’

* Accountability. In another victory, the Blueprint recognizes that the feds erred in trying to dictate changes to virtually all the nation’s schools. The Blueprint would drop specified sanctions for all but the lowest-scoring schools. This creates a major problem.

Consistent with RTTT, the Blueprint says the lowest-scoring 5% of schools in each state should be subject to one of four “turnaround” approaches. There is little to no evidence that these approaches will work. They were tried in Chicago under Duncan, where several independent investigations concluded they failed. “Five percent” means that cities, poor rural communities and low-income suburbs will have far larger percentages of these schools. The Blueprint also fails to support many improvement ideas that do have some record of success.

Duncan also wants the next to the bottom 5% to be labeled ‘warning’ schools. Richard Rothstein explained that the margin of error in test results means that the lowest-scoring 20% of schools will be at risk of falling into the bottom 5% or 10% categories, meaning that nearly all schools serving low-income populations are at risk to be in the bottom. To avoid that fate, the scramble to raise test scores will continue unabated. As a result, most poor kids can expect a continued educational diet of test prep junk food.

FEA proposes that the federal government focus on helping schools in need but discard the turnaround menu’s unproven (or proven to fail) options. It should identify schools using a combination of quantitative data and inspections of each school by qualified teams. FEA called on Congress to “Build improvement plans from elements demonstrated to be essential to school improvement, e.g., collaborative professional development, strong leadership, parent involvement, and rich and challenging curriculum.”

The Blueprint recommends school quality reviews (inspections) as a state option. FairTest has long supported using a mix of local assessments, limited standardized tests, and a school quality review process. A review approach has the support of the National Education Association.

Many in Congress, particularly those representing many rural school districts, which lack the capacity to implement the turnaround options, are displeased with the Blueprint’s menu. It is likely Congress will make changes to these provisions. 

- FEA’s recommendations are on the web at and at